Friday, April 6, 2012

Facts About Fermented Foods

Facts about Fermented Foods
Jennifer Koslo, PhD, RD, CSSD, CPT
FT Faculty H&W/NS Departments
I read an article the other day in one of my dietetics magazines about fermented foods which reminded me of the tub of miso that has been in my fridge for several years. Yes I did say years and yes surprisingly it is still safe to eat. I am one who takes food safety pretty seriously so you can trust me on that one. Anyway, for me fermented foods held absolutely no appeal when I was growing up as I did in a PA Dutch and Ukrainian family. Think sauerkraut, pickled cauliflower, carrots, green beans, peppers, etc. They look so pretty in the jar and so enticing until you take a bite. Then you realize that it was all a ruse as your mouth puckers at the sour taste. Ick. But of course I am a sucker for anything with health benefits so when I became a vegetarian and started doing my own cooking I discovered another class of fermented foods more to my liking: soy products like miso and tempeh.
It turns out that pickled and fermented foods like sauerkraut, yogurt and cheese have been around for many, many years. The earliest record of fermentation dates back as far as 6000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent and just about every civilization has at least one fermented food in its culinary lineage.  Fermentation was originally developed as a way to preserve foods but interest and research has grown in recent years due to their probiotic content. Home fermentation or lactic acid fermentation is one of the easiest and most common home methods. It is an anaerobic process in which lactic acid bacteria, mainly Lactobacillus, convert sugar to lactic acid which acts as a preservative. Salt is a necessary component as it helps the bacteria to grow which in turn prevent the growth of pathogenic microorganisms. The salt also pulls water and nutrients from the food and adds flavor.
Interestingly I had just been eyeing a package of kimchi at my local Trader Joe’s and debating the pros and cons of trying it. I am one of those people who aren’t very impulsive, so I decided I would mull it over. Then I read the article on fermented foods and wouldn’t you know that kimchi was discussed as one of several fermented foods from Korea. Other examples included Japanese natto (soybeans), Vietnamese ma’m (seafood), Chinese douche (black beans) and Lao pa deek (fish sauce). The article also discussed garri which is fermented cassava root native to West African countries. Because I lived in Sierra Leone, West Africa, the mention of cassava root conjured up a few memories of some of the less than delectable meals I ate while serving there. Guess I didn’t realize how healthy it was at the time and maybe I should have appreciated it more.

In terms of science, research, and health benefits, the bulk of research to date has focused on the probiotics in dairy foods. However, links between other types of fermented foods and health can be traced back as far as ancient Rome and China. Evidence-based reviews indicate that certain strains of probiotics contribute to the microbial balance of the gastrointestinal tract. This is important because our intestines are our first line of defense in our immune system so keeping them healthy can go a long way towards preventing and reducing inflammation of the gut. Inflammation in the intestines can lead to diarrhea, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and even cancer.
As with all things, modernization of our food supply has taken small scale fermentation to large batch production. What this means is that your pickles are produced different so that very little if any beneficial bacteria are present and the number of actual live bacteria in your yogurt may be suspect. So if you seek the health benefits of lacto-fermented foods, check for ones that were produced in small batches and sold in gourmet health foods stores, farmers markets and Asian shops. Or you may want to give home fermentation or pickling a try.


Christine Eubanks said...

"Anyway, for me fermented foods held absolutely no appeal when I was growing up as I did in a PA Dutch and Ukrainian family."

Yes me too. I don't want fermented foods before then when i learned the health benefits of it, i changed my lifestyle.

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